The Pillars of Tokyo

If Fernando Galli Bibiena, famed scenographer, designer extraordinaire of endless, receding, Baroque pillared symmetries, with trick halls and mirage-like backdrops—

—were cloned next year, raised in Hollywood, and hired to remake Total Recall, he’d probably make something like this:

It’s Tokyo’s massive “G-Cans Project,” a subterranean system of polished concrete viaducts built “for preventing overflow of the major rivers and waterways spidering the city.”

This emergency overflow-sewer is apparently “the largest in the world,” with “five 32m diameter, 65m deep concrete containment silos which are connected by 64 kilometers of tunnel sitting 50 meters beneath the surface. The whole system is powered by 14000 horsepower turbines which can pump 200 tons of water a second.”

The G-Cans Project reveals the quasi-mythic splendor of grandiose civic infrastructure, something the United States is ridding itself of entirely—yet also something Japan is now all but entombed within.

A “construction state”—or doken kokka—has effectively taken over the Japanese economy, according to Gavan McCormack in the New Left Review. The doken kokka, McCormack writes, “is opaque, unaccountable, and therefore hard to reform. Essentially, it enables the country’s powerful bureaucrats to channel the population’s life savings into a wide range of debt-encrusted public bodies—those in charge of highways, bridge-building, dams and development initiatives,” and that means “promising new public-works projects,” thus “concreting the archipelago.”

Under construction right now, in fact, is “a grandiose [national development plan] calling for the construction of new railway lines, express highways, airports, information systems, no less than six new bridges between the islands, large dams and nuclear installations and, last but far from least, a new capital city… to take over many functions from Tokyo.”

The article is pretty amazing, actually, even shocking—though I do have to say that some of the projects it describes would be an engineer’s dream. But it comes with the realization that all this frenzied global construction may be more than just a bubble—see recent analyses of China’s own building boom, for instance—or Dubai—but a kind of hysteria, a building-pathology.

One wonders, in fact, if there might be a disease, something Freud discovered, a neurosis of some kind: suddenly you start building things, and you don’t stop building things. You move beyond talking—building, building, always building—and soon you’re like the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with mashed potatoes all over your hands and there’s a mountain in your living room. That, or you’ve just built the world’s largest sewer.

(See earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Nobson Newtown

I just found an old article from frieze about graphic artist Paul Noble‘s “monumental eight-year project… [to create] a fictional city called Nobson Newtown.”


Nobson Newtown was an “exercise in self-portraiture via town planning,” involving “the painstaking design of a special font based on the forms of classic modernist architecture.”
The “city,” in other words, was made of words.


“Variously described as ‘3-D Scrabble tiles’ or ‘Lego blocks’, Noble’s pictograms name the buildings that they depict. From the hospital (Nobspital) to the cemetery (Nobsend) via the town centre (Nobson Central) or the Mall, citations from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Gerard Winstanley’s letters to Oliver Cromwell or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland are camouflaged within the fields, the trees or the brickwork. Noble’s project embodies a complex infrastructure of civil planning, social policies and historical perspectives” – and it was all done with pencil. (Book available here).


“At first,” says the BBC, “the drawings appear to be depictions of a crazy Babylonian society, with a touch of Brueghel’s Tower Of Babel and Robert Crumb’s rounded comic strips. Then you realise each building is also a 3-D letter of the alphabet spelling out hard to decipher sentences in Noble’s self-created Nobfont.”


But he wasn’t the first.
Nearly two decades earlier, in 1980, Steven Holl published his own “Alphabetical City” through Pamphlet Architecture, and it, too, consisted entirely of buildings that were actually letters, that were actually a city, that… – but the funny thing is, Holl’s drawings look absolutely, unpublishably stupid compared to Noble’s:


Hello? One wonders which two-minute lunch break Holl took to draw those… Or was it thirty seconds?
In any case, the creation of architectural space through a tweaking of the alphabet is not an inherently interesting proposition, but Noble’s eye-failure-inducing drawings reward repeated viewings. Just blink occasionally.
The buildings, frieze‘s Tom Morton claims, look like, “odd, wind-carved rock formations. Standing on higher ground, squinting against the sun, we’d see that they formed an eroded text.”
Here I’m reminded of the idea of “slow sculpture” from China Miéville’s novel, Iron Council:
“Huge sedimentary stones… each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
Perhaps, in those dissolving rocks, you could plan a slow and secret alphabet…

Geomagnetic harddrive

In her recent biography of Sir Christopher Wren – whose towers, domes and steeples appear in the image above – Lisa Jardine describes how she discovered that the London Monument, designed in 1677 by Wren and Robert Hooke together, is actually “a unique, hugely ambitious, vastly oversized scientific instrument” that uses “strategically placed vents and vantage points” to function as a multi-purpose observation deck and lab for measuring atmospheric pressure.

While I was living in Berlin a few years ago, it struck me once that the U-Bahn system could pass, in its own way, for a different kind of “hugely ambitious, vastly oversized scientific instrument” – before I realized, of course, that the Tube, the Metro, the NY subway, etc. – the Beijing underground, Prague, Rome and so forth – all of them could pass for such “scientific instruments.”

In other words, those buried urban routes, with all their circuits linked and cross-connected into electrically mechanized networks that passed through mineral deposits and solid bedrock – including the various branches of late-night service that maintained more or less perpetual motion, humming and soaring through manmade canyons beneath parks and plazas and apartment blocks, as if to imply that the global geotechnical industry had been taken over by Athanasius Kircher


I realized that, in all that tumult of foundations and energy, you could, if you wanted to, listen for the subtle, cello-like moan of distant trains; and it occurred to me that the whole system, the entirety of the Berlin U-Bahn, could pass for a working model of the universe. A sonic model, at the very least, of the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. A vaulted hum, reverbing back and through itself beneath the city.

Or – and this next idea is only slightly less ridiculous, for you cynics out there – it occurred to me that if the U-Bahn system could somehow be hooked up to massive, earth-anchored magnets, and made, therefore, to produce a magnetic field of its own, that you could transform all of Berlin into a geomagnetic harddrive.

As a sail traps the wind, a planetary harddrive would use geomagnetism.

Provided constant motion on behalf of the trains, I thought, and given absolutely gigantic magnets of the right polarity and location, Berlin could start producing its own magnetic field – which meant that any city with a subway could be transformed into a harddrive. Harddrive London. Harddrive Beijing.

Harddrive Moscow.

Of course, it’s obvious even to me that you’d have to do quite a lot more than just bury some magnets underground in order to transform a city into a harddrive – you’d need a shovel, for instance, and perhaps some strong anti-manic drugs; but my point is that if Christopher Wren could build a tower that simultaneously memorialized the Great Fire of London even as it acted as a scientific device, then perhaps you could turn urban infrastructure itself into a kind of working scientific apparatus.

You could turn all of Berlin into a geomagnetic harddrive.

Urban rock walks, or: how to podcast a landscape

If you’ve ever wondered what the streets and buildings and monuments of the UK are constructed from, a good enough place to start is the BBC’s Walks with Rocks, where psychogeography meets paleontology meets continental drift. Paleo-psycho-ontogeography, perhaps. In any case, now you can learn the geological origins of paving stones, the density, formation pressures and tectonic ancestry of the architraves on that rockin’ bldg across the street from Boots.


For instance: ‘Looking at the foyer of Berkeley Square House we can see Norwegian igneous combined with Italian freshwater spring limestones. The adjacent Citroen and Rolls Royce showrooms tempt us with Tethyan limestone full of fossils. The Tethyan region was the seaway that lay to the South of the Eurasian Continent and to the North of Australia/India/Africa during the Late Paleozoic and Early Mesozoic periods’ – from Stop 7 on the Dover Street, W1, map.
While you’re at it, my televisual posts continue with British Isles: A Natural History on BBC One: ‘The series and inserts explore how over three billion years Britain has been boiled in lava, buried under tropical swamps and swept by desert sands. They show how it was crushed by enormous glaciers, released by warm winds, forested from north to south and how the influence of human life has dramatically changed the landscape.’ You can also ask what’s beneath your feet – no, it’s not sheepshit, it’s…
Then there are these audio recordings from the BBC’s new *Coast* show, which despite suffering from a rather alarming quantity of badly-accented historical reenactors offers one model for how to podcast a landscape.
Here’s a link to the first episode of the TV show, which, in combination with the second episode, traces out the following geography:


Finally, more Atlantis b.s. in the news, but I still think it’s cool: another tsunami theory, this one about Spartel Island (now submerged) in the Straits of Gibraltar:

The light/surface fold: advertisements, Steven Holl, et cetera

I noticed several years ago that the pine forests outside Chapel Hill, NC, fill with a strange white light in winter, and not for the obvious reasons that, yes, it’s winter, so the leaves are all gone: ergo more light.
Nope: it’s because the angle that the earth takes in relation to the sun has changed, as it does every winter, and so the forests have literally begun to glow: the sun has begun hitting them at a different angle.
Winter, in this regard, is really a question of spherical geometry, angles, and trigonometric effects at long distances: sun–>earth/angle of incidence (or whatever). One of winter’s more interesting side effects, then, is the way that it transforms shadows – making them longer and thinner – while simultaneously illuminating objects from the side. This brings out details that go unremarked – and unlit – in other seasons.
All of these written reflections having been inspired by this photograph:


What’s interesting here is how the billboard enlists sun/earth trigonometry in the selling of suntan lotion. Who’da guessed?
But so I got to thinking about what would happen if you did more of that with architecture, if you learned a spatio-architectural lesson from however brief a glance at that billboard.
The deliberate shadow-machining effects of different times of day, say, in the vein of Steven Holl: entire hallways and galleries and courtyards and milled surface details could become visible only at specific hours, perhaps in pre-patterned ways.
Like an inhabitable sundial, you would always know it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon because the little grilled incisions in the plaster of the upstairs walls just appeared. They were invisible before that, and will be invisible again: but now is their moment in the light…
Or you know it’s noon because there are suddenly no shadows of any kind in your courtyard: you’ve angled everything perfectly for that moment. The space folds in on itself, reboots back to undisturbed white, and at 12:01pm the shadows reappear.
I just mean to point out the connection, here, between architecture and astronomy – via spherical, planetary trigonometrics – not because I’m the first to do so or even because it’s ultimately all that interesting, but because every little mundane trace – mere shadows – can be seen as an indication of literally superior, astro-stellar relationships.
Every shadow, if you do the math right, if you know the angles and the trig and the spherical velocity of objects in space, is actually an indication of the time of day – in a calendar that precedes Swatch and Swiss Army and electricity and even biological organisms as such.
And every kid with a flashlight – every person with a match or candle – every architect, even – can participate. Everything you build can be – and is automatically – an astronomical event.

Lunar urbanism deux

The abstract of ‘Lunar architecture and urbanism’ by Brent Sherwood reads: ‘Human civilization and architecture have defined each other for over 5000 years on Earth. Even in the novel environment of space, persistent issues of human urbanism will eclipse, within a historically short time, the technical challenges of space settlement that dominate our current view. By adding modern topics in space engineering, planetology, life support, human factors, material invention, and conservation to their already renaissance array of expertise, urban designers can responsibly apply ancient, proven standards to the exciting new opportunities afforded by space. Inescapable facts about the Moon set real boundaries within which tenable lunar urbanism and its component architecture must eventually develop.’
Sherwood was/is with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. An otherwise so-so paper, published originally in 1992.
If only he knew about the viab/nozzle

‘Animaris Mammoth’

At the risk of repeating another article, I’ll just quote liberally instead: Lakshmi Sandhana writes in *Wired* (24 Jan 05: *Wild Things Are on the Beach*) about Theo Jansen, an artist ‘evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind.’ ‘His latest creations contain lemonade bottles in their body structure into which the wind is slowly pumped, enabling the creature to walk for a couple of minutes afterward. (…) He says a future version – a 12-ton behemoth, big enough to have several rooms inside – could be called the Animaris Mammoth.’
A friend of Jansen’s, Carl Pisaturo, another robotics designer, refers to a collapsed Jansenian creature as ‘a tipped-over, short-circuited machine half-buried in beach sand’ – surely outdoing the end of *Planet of the Apes*, or at least competing.
So could you do that with a building? It captures wind in huge flexible sacks that gradually return to normal size, pumping the air into a complex network of pneumatic tubing; these then power the elevators, vents, and whatever else you need. The plumbing perhaps. When you go through the doldrums of a windless Spring, the building effectively shuts down. But in a windstorm, you’d be forgiven for thinking the building was artificially intelligent. Constant motion, unpredictable internal rearrangements.
Artificial intelligence through wind. An architectural version of the Aeolian harp. Covered in sails and windsacs. A huge architectural lung, traveling slowly over the coastal landscape, fourteen thousand years after humans have gone extinct.
And then it collapses…

2 architectural suggestions for stopping time

While not ‘architectural,’ really – though I’m reminded of Norman Foster’s assertion that the 747 airplane is the single most important architectural design of the 20th century (giving a whole new perspective to September 11th: it was an architectural competition, and the skyscraper lost) – two architectural suggestions for stopping time are as follows:
1) Build a solar-powered airplane and fly it at exactly the speed of the rotation of the earth, against the earth’s rotation. Do this at high-noon, over the equator. The plane will always be in the glow of the sun, never leaving its precise and comfortable position at high-noon. Having become a geostationary structure in a low-atmosphere orbit, the airplane, barring mechanical failure, will never advance forward in time. It will always be noon, technically on the same day. It will be architecture that’s seceded from the aging of the universe.
2) Build a box of perfectly reflective internal surfaces. Light will never be absorbed or dissipated, but endlessly recycled and returned through the box’s mirrored interior. Whatever moment it captures – that is, whatever was happening when the box was sealed: the event, or location, that bounced its reflective way into the box’s hermetic closure – will remain in a constant state of cross-reflection, never dissipating or fading. The image, a kind of 3-dimensional holograph of the event it refers to, can then be sent floating outward from the earth, drifting through space, reflecting, never aging, one moment stuttering through itself over and over again till universal heat-death does us in.
And in both cases – within those two spatial instances, those two pieces of ‘architecture’ – time will effectively be stopped.
(Or so he tells himself.)

bldgblog-as-soundbite

We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard and the international warehousing strategies of Bechtel than we do from Le Corbusier. The good city form of tomorrow is a refugee camp built by Brown & Root; the world’s largest architectural client is the U.S. Department of Defense. More people now live in overseas military camps than in houses designed by Mies van der Rohe – yet we study Mies van der Rohe.